“Iron Your Socks!”

Paying attention to the littlest of details

I mentioned the influence that John Wooden has had on my teaching career in my first blog post. His accolades include being named the greatest coach of the 20th century by ESPN in 1999, and being named greatest coach of all time in any sport by Sporting News in 2009.

I don’t know what criteria they used to determine what it means to be the greatest coach ever, but I imagine that the success of his teams had a lot to do with it. For some critics, success means winning, and Wooden’s UCLA teams won a lot — 10 NCAA basketball championships (“March Madness”) including 7 in a row. However, Wooden’s personal definition of success has nothing to do with winning.

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

I like this definition of success. It goes deeper than just saying “do your best”; it requires one to have self-satisfaction and peace of mind from doing their best.

The Socks Lesson

So here’s this coach whose basketball teams were highly successful by anyone’s standards. Can you guess what he taught his players in the very first team meeting of each season?

He taught them how to put on their socks.

“Now pull it up in the back, pull it up real good, real strong. Now run your hand around the little toe area. Make sure there are no wrinkles and then pull it back up. Check the heel area. We don’t want any sign of a wrinkle about it. The wrinkle will be sure you get blisters, and those blisters are going to make you lose playing time, and if you’re good enough, your loss of playing time might get the coach fired.”

Each year, UCLA had some of the most highly coveted basketball players in the country, and coach was teaching them how to put on their socks at the first practice. Why?

The socks lesson goes much deeper than preventing blisters. His point was that in order to achieve the highest levels of success, one must pay attention to even the littlest of details, such as putting on your socks properly.

“Iron Your Socks!”

A few years ago, I told one of my math classes about John Wooden’s socks lesson. However, I messed up the details of the story. I told them that Wooden showed them not just how to put on their socks, but how to iron them as well to get out every wrinkle. Hence, we developed a saying in that class of “iron your socks!”; it means to pay attention to the details.

In math, there can often be numerous details to keep track of, and a mistake in just one detail can cause the final answer to be wrong (e.g. a missed negative sign, adding instead of multiplying, math facts errors, transcription errors, missing a detail when reading the question).

When I check a student’s work for an extended problem and see that their final answer is incorrect, I go back and look at their process. Sometimes it is a conceptual error and I engage with the student to help them understand. However, often times it is not a lack of understanding of math, but a small detail somewhere along the line that led to an incorrect final answer. In these instances, I advise the student to “iron your socks”.

Using the expression “iron your socks” is helpful in a couple of ways:

  • It’s a cue. When students hear it, they know that it’s not their understanding that is wrong, but a small detail, and they go back and look for it.
  • It’s cuter than the alternatives (e.g. “careless mistake”), and has gotten students to smile on quite a number of occasions, even after they found out there was a mistake in their solution they worked so hard on.

I received a couple of end-of-year gifts from that first class who I told the socks story to: a basketball and a pair of socks.

And the socks matched my shoes!